Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story:
A young man wanted to learn how to draw lotus flowers, so he went to a master to apprentice with him. The master took him to a lotus pond and invited him to sit there. The young man saw flowers bloom when the sun was high, and he watched them return into buds when night fell. Then next morning, he did the same. When one lotus flower wilted and its petals fell into the water, he just looked at the stalk, the stamen, and the rest of the flower, and then moved on to another lotus. He did that for ten days. On the eleventh day, the master asked him, “Are you ready?” and he replied, “I will try.” The master gave him a brush, and although the young man’s style was childlike, the lotus he drew was beautiful. He had become the lotus, and the painting came forth from him. You could see his naïveté concerning technique, but deep beauty was there.
I work with a lot of writers who despair of ever being “good enough.” I sympathize; I know quite clearly my own craft limitations—an uninspired vocabulary, untrustworthy grammatical instincts, a propensity to play it safe with voice and form. Sometimes being a published writer reminds me of walking through the world as a not-very-beautiful woman. I can be painfully aware of my lack of style and blemished skin and cheap haircut. Most days, though, I forget these. I turn my attention to arenas of beauty I value more—the garden, meditation—and trust these to cultivate inner beauty.
The beauty of the apprentice’s drawing rose from his profound relationship with the lotus flower. This potential is available to all willing to humble ourselves before a subject. Genuine, openhearted engagement—what writer Brenda Ueland calls “interestingness”—is the basic ingredient of a fruitful creative process. Isn’t this amazing? Art-making is essentially egalitarian in nature. Each and every one of us ordinary people has the capacity to create beauty.
Have you ever sat through a memorial service at which a grieving grandchild read a coarse but genuine rendering of the departed one’s life and set everyone weeping? Have you ever received a card that touched you so profoundly you saved it for years? When I taught seventh grade, my struggling students always floored me with their poetry; it was raw and real because they put their hearts into it and spoke the truth.
Talent and skill and craft and effort will all increase the effectiveness of art-making, but the essential ingredients for stirring another person’s heart are available to everyone: curiosity, dedication, attention, humility, and courage. Hope to see you down at the pond this summer! –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
NEWS: Save the date for a celebration of the transformative power of revision and a book launch! On the evening of November 17th at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, a handful of writers (including P.S. Duffy, Susan Power, and Kyoko Katayama) will share stories about how they were changed by revising their work. Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice will finally be in print.
Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. Topics to be determined.
September 25, 2017, 9:30-10:30 a.m.: An hour exploring memoir with the Life Enrichment Adult Forum at Christ Lutheran Church in Blaine.
October 25, 2017, 6:30: An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.
October 27, 2017: Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice workshop at the Loft Literary Center.